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Only Following Orders

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The story you are about to read is one that has been, for the last 70 years, left to wither in the hearts of those few who recall it. Of the twelve of us present that day, only I remain, and my own end is rapidly approaching. I write this tale with shaky hand solely in order to console myself in my final moments, and I hope anyone who may discover this document will refrain from judgement upon me or my comrades until the end.

I distinctly recall sitting in a tent with my fellow soldiers just outside of Berlin, huddling around a shortwave radio and listening to the trials of our nation’s greatest foes. They feigned insanity, pled guilty, gave harrowing accounts of every detail and every single crime committed by their hand or under their watch. My favorites, however, were the ones who pled innocent; the ones who said, “I was just following orders”.

I had to wonder what I would say, had the war ended with Moscow under the iron eagle. What would I say, if asked to justify my actions in war? I believe I know exactly what I would say, and it would be the same as the men being jeered by the entire Red Army - excluding the ten of us gathered in the tent. You see, the two luckiest of us had already died.

It was a quiet village in eastern Germany, December 24th, 1944. We were under orders to seek out any soldiers lying in wait to ambush the main column of the Army. Our sergeant, Ivan, took the lead, the rest of us falling in behind him. It was raining heavily, obscuring our vision. A sharp crack jerked me to attention, and I immediately fell to my stomach. I smelled smoke and heard a thump in the dirt a dozen feet ahead of me.

The sound of gunfire roared in my ears as we returned fire. We had no idea where the shot had come from, so each among us took our best guess and fired in that direction. We knew we would not hit the shooter, but we had hoped to scare him off.

I decided to hold my fire in order to cover my comrades as they reloaded their weapons. When the gunfire stopped, I watched carefully the nearby houses. A quick movement by a roadside fence caught my eye, and I quickly shot off a couple rounds at the dark mass. At least one of my shots must’ve landed, because whatever it was fell to the ground, unmoving. By now, my fellow soldiers had finished reloading, and so I ejected my magazine and slid a new one in its place.

We were still for some time, waiting for the returning fire. When it never came, Ivan came up to a crouch and quietly walked over to the corpse. He felt the pulse, and then returned to us.

“Yes, we got him,” he said. In his eyes, I saw something I hadn’t seen before; a kind of deep sadness and regret. No matter how I pushed, he would not tell me why. We stood, and casually walked over to the house where the shooter had come from. Ivan knocked on the door. We waited a moment, and Ivan firmly planted his foot on the floor, rearing to kick the door down, when a shotgun blast blew through the door. Ivan fell to the ground, riddled with buckshot. We returned fire through the door, then swiftly beat it down with the stock of our rifles.

Inside, broken glass littered the floor and bulletholes scattered along the walls. On the ground was a young woman, shot fatally four times. In her hand, the shotgun that killed Ivan.

We had had more than enough of this village. We ransacked the house, throwing over tables and filling our pockets with valuables. When we had finished, we threw gas lamps onto the floor and tossed matches on the pooling liquid. We left the house on fire.

It was only once we were outside again that we heard the wailing. By then, the flames had taken hold, and it was too late to reenter the building. The mother had hidden her babe, before turning to fight us, and we hadn’t found it before torching the house. The wails continued for just a few minutes before falling silent among the crackling of flames.

A man burst from a building down the street and sprinted toward us, screaming in German. Our translator gaped at him, and when we raised our rifles, he held up his hand to stop us. The German man shoved past us and up to the burning building. He hesitated only briefly at the doorway before running through. He didn’t come back out.

By the time the fire had died, we couldn’t see it anymore. The rest of our mission went by in silence. When we doubled back to where we came, we found people standing in the street, staring at us. Some were angry, some sad, but most had just a blank stare. I still see it in my nightmares.

When we passed the house, I stopped. I announced to no one in particular that I had to take a leak. No one believed it, but that didn’t matter. I stepped into the shell of the house we had destroyed. There, on the floor in the bedroom, I saw the skeleton of a man crushed under a wooden beam, a smaller collection of misshapen bones in his arms. In the yard, by the fence, I saw a little boy with a toy gun, dressed in the oversized uniform of a German soldier.

That night, we all had nightmares. The man, with his wild eyes, told each of us that he would be back for us, one after the other. The next day, we had laughed it off together, we had thrown ourselves into our duties, we had fought hard not to think about the screaming man and the wailing baby.

One by one, as the years went by, we died. Here, one of us fell from a tower we were constructing; there, an aggressive form of cancer that suddenly appeared in the brain. Never obvious, but always suspicious to us, because we knew. We all knew what was happening. When there were two of us, just Ioseph and I, he had come to visit me. When he had knocked, I thought my time had come; but I should’ve known I would be last.

“He’s coming for me,” Ioseph had said. “It is my time now.”

I would’ve liked to console him, to assure him it was all a coincidence, but we both knew better. That night, Ioseph cried on my shoulder, and I on his. “I’m so sorry” he had sobbed. “I didn’t know”.

The next day, he shot himself in his apartment.

That was one week ago, and now it is my turn. I know he is coming; every night in my sleep he gazes into my eyes, and smiles. Every night, he smiles wider. Last night, he began to speak. Quietly, so quiet I cannot hear any of what he says, other than make out that he is speaking. I don’t want to hear what he has to say; I cannot sleep tonight.

I will stay up as late as possible, and before I sleep I will climb to the roof and stand on the edge. I must. I cannot know what he will say. The shot at us, the woman killed Ivan; we couldn’t have known about the baby, we were just eliminating the resistance, that’s all! We were only following orders!

Only following orders...

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